Here's hoping for a better honey season this year

Mexican bees wake up promptly as the sun pokes over the horizon, but the Mexican vendor in Aguascalientes, who sells us bees and other supplies for making honey, is not much of an early riser. 

Felix, in his new beekeeper costume, checking our four hives. 

The drive from San Miguel to Aguascalientes Tuesday afternoon was tedious, curvy and took the better part of four hours. We stayed overnight at a cheap motel so we could get to the supplier the next morning, just as we’d been instructed, by 7 a.m. But alas, folks at the bee supply store were an hour-and-a-half late showing up and we didn’t wrap up our business until after 10 a.m.

We’d come to pick up two new hives, each with a queen bee and five “frames” covered with restless bees. Bees are touchy critters, calm when it’s dark, but furiously buzzing after the sun comes up. It’s best to handle them early in the day.

The vendor checking our bees,
before putting them in our new
hives. The smoker next to the
box is used to calm down the
 while they are being handled. 

The beekeeper took us to a ramshackle storage yard, filled with discarded hives and other supplies and began pulling the frames full of bees out of a wooden box, examining each one carefully. He pointed out the two queen bees, and carefully put each frame in our two new hives.

Our first shopping trip to Aguascalientes, two years ago, almost turned catastrophic when some of the bees in the two hives, which were resting on the back seat, escaped and buzzed around. We had to pull over several times, open the windows and shoo away the rogue bees. Stew is severely allergic to bee stings!

This time we made sure both hives were covered with mosquito cloth and placed them on the bed of the pickup truck. We didn’t have any problems and even stopped for breakfast on the way back.

Each hive has room for ten frames and eventually, when the hive is fully buzzing, the bees will populate all ten. The five empty frames to be filled for now just have sheets of wax for the bees to hang onto.

The large box at the bottom of the hive is the “brood chamber,” where the bees make whoopee and the ultra fecund queen bee lays eggs by the thousands. As the brood chamber fills up, smaller boxes, called “supers,” each with their own frames and sheets of wax, are gradually added on top and that’s where the honey collects.

One of the frames covered with bees.

When it’s time to collect the honey, the supers are placed in a hand-cranked centrifuge, a stainless steel tank-like contraption about four feet wide and three feet deep, standing on four legs. The honey is extracted from the supers and collects at the bottom of the centrifuge. As it comes out of the tap, it’s strained and collected in plastic five-gallon buckets. Felix and his wife Isela come out a day or two later, and ladle the honey into jars. The all-day process is tedious and a damn mess.

Last year the honey harvest was very poor, only about one-third the 15 gallons Stew and Felix expected. In the U.S., some honey producers have blamed the collapse of bee populations on certain pesticides, used in commercial agriculture, that contain nicotine-related chemicals that also kill bees. The nicotinoid pesticides have been almost completely banned in Europe but not in the U.S.

Behold one of our two queen bees.
You can tell by the green
spot on her back. 

I think our crop failure, though, was caused by, hmm, a bit of negligence on the part of Messrs. Stew and Felix. They, of course, instead blame climate change, cosmic rays, a dry summer, not enough wildflowers or perhaps an act of a nasty Mayan God.

Whatever. This year we replaced the one rotten hive and added a new one, for a total of four, and Stew and Felix promise to be more attentive. We’ve also begun to plant flowers that attract bees.

Honey fanciers in San Miguel should beware of fake honey, imported from China, that is watered down or mixed with corn syrup. The Chinese are said to control as much as 80 percent of the Mexico honey market with their adulterated honey.

So look for the pure Rancho Santa Clara brand [REAL RAW ORGANIC], even if it’s more expensive. Felix needs the money. And the costs of those trips to Aguascalientes, and dinner at a pricey steakhouse, can add up, even if we stay at a cheap motel.

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